At the end of a year seemingly marked by more tragedy and loss than usual, here are 10 jazz albums from 2014 to raise spirits.
The Steve Lehman Octet, “Mise en Abîme” (Pi Recordings): Saxophonist Steve Lehman calls the sound explored here “spectral harmony,” an ephemeral-sounding concept that involves overtones and microtones but better translates as an intricate and adventurous whole. Inside a latticework of horns from some of modern jazz’s top talent, Lehman’s swerving compositions sound grounded in the here-and-now, even while staying rooted in history through reinvented takes on two songs by Bud Powell.
The Brian Blade Fellowship, “Landmarks” (Blue Note): A first-call session drummer, Brian Blade steps away from his longtime gig behind Wayne Shorter to record this richly melodic disc, which explores the Americana and gospel-shaded sounds of his native Shreveport, La. Anchored by pianist Jon Cowherd, the haunting “Ark.La.Tex” acts as the record’s centerpiece, but the warm interplay of the veteran band offers surprises with each listen.
Orrin Evans, “Liberation Blues” (Smoke Sessions): Jazz lives on the bandstand, and all credit to the owners of the New York City jazz club Smoke for venturing into recording with a series of live albums that consistently captures bracing concerts by the likes of Cyrus Chestnut, Jimmy Cobb and Eric Reed. One of my favorites is this set led by pianist and bandleader Evans, who throws sparks in a band that includes trumpeter JD Allen and saxophonist Sean Jones.
Matt Wilson Quartet + John Medeski, “Gathering Call” (Palmetto): Bringing Duke Ellington and Beyoncé onto common ground under the banner of an unstoppable groove, this drummer’s album is a hard-swinging, thoroughly modern take on soul jazz. Matt Wilson’s longtime collaborators Jeff Lederer and Chris Lightcap are joyfully game throughout, and Medeski’s rollicking piano slickly proves his jazz cred for anyone uncertain of his depth as co-leader of the trio Medeski Martin and Wood.
Jerome Sabbagh, “The Turn” (Sunnyside): A rising figure on the New York jazz scene, French-born tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh leads a taut quartet through lyrical originals and a lone cover in the late Paul Motian’s “Once Around the Park.” Sabbagh’s consistently inventive tone pairs well with the quartet’s driving rhythms, and guitarist Ben Monder remains an underrated gem as his shape-shifting tone ventures into gruff, rock-fueled textures.
Sarah Manning, “Harmonious Creature” (Posi-Tone): Venturing into wide open spaces that occasionally recall the folk-tilted chamber jazz of guitarist Bill Frisell, Manning’s sound is aided in part by the nimble backing of occasional Frisell sideman Eyvind Kang, whose viola forms a harmonious counterweight to Manning’s saxophone. A serrated cover of Neil Young’s “On the Beach” and Gillian Welch’s lilting “I Dream a Highway” further underscore her broad, borderless vision.
Ambrose Akinmusire, “The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint” (Blue Note): The highly buzzed trumpeter builds upon the promise of his 2011 debut with an album that’s even more determined to defy categorization. Inspired vocal cameos from Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckmann and Al Spx of Cold Specks further expand Akinmusire’s scope, and the moving “Rollcall for Those Absent,” with a child reading the names of young black lives lost to senseless violence, grows more haunting every day.
Medeski Martin & Wood + Nels Cline, “Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2" (Burnside/Code 7): Between another stirring release from his group the Nels Cline Singers and a lush duet with young guitarist Julian Lage, it’s been another busy year for this L.A. son, who packs a lot of exploration into his move to New York between Wilco dates. But my favorite was this raw, all-improvised pairing with the avant-jazz trio, which often finds a unique intersection between the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Sonic Youth.
David Virelles, “Mbókò" (ECM): The Cuban-born pianist delivers maybe this list’s most difficult album to describe, a spacious and contemplative recording with the subtitle “Sacred Music for Piano, Two Basses, Drum Set and Biankoméko Abakuá,” the latter being a four-drum percussion set. Balancing a range of rhythmic textures and bass drones with Virelles’ tumbling, at times Monkish interludes, the album casts an immersive spell.
Tineke Postma and Greg Osby, “Sonic Halo” (Challenge Records): A transcontinental exchange between saxophonists as well as a mentor and protégé, this meeting of Holland’s Tineke Postma and longtime U.S. force Greg Osby is a beautifully tangled venture that benefits from the backing of a powerhouse group of inventive bandleaders in their own right in pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and ever-restless percussionist Dan Weiss.
Ten more worth mentioning: Fantastic concert archive releases by John Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, Jimmy Giuffre, and Charlie Haden with Jim Hall, as well as albums by Bobby Avey, Fred Hersch, Tom Rainey, Marc Ribot, Walter Smith III and Tyshawn Sorey.
Trend that needs to go away in 2015: Trolling jazz fans: In the rapid-fire point-counterpoint culture of the Internet, there’s no surer bet to attract notice than staking a controversial position that inspires outrage. In addition to the usual, semi-monthly stories insisting upon jazz’s ongoing demise — and seriously, can we check the pulse of other genres for a while? — jazz fans endured (and, yes, probably overreacted to) a weirdly caustic “first-person” piece in the New Yorker that imagined Sonny Rollins claiming he wasted his life playing the music. Jazz fans may not have the greatest senses of humor at this point, but if you’re going to make a joke at the genre’s expense, at least have the courtesy to be sure it’s funny.